By Basil Fernando –
From 1962 there are literally thousands of people who have served sentences in Burmese prisons as political prisoners. The people resisted the military throughout this long period of about 60 years despite the ruthlessness with which the military dealt with every form of resistance. However there was continuous resistance and from one generation to the other the people dared to face long years of imprisonments for resisting dictatorship.
Today even spending few days in a place like Yangon one could come across so many people who have spent good part of their lives in prisons as a punishment for engaging in political activities. Many upon return continue to be part of the opposition in one way or the other and continue their fight for freedom.
These days, when for the first time, there is a little free political climate they openly move about exercising their political rights and working towards finding ways to establish a democratic form of government again. Thus despite extreme repression over a long period of times the determination and the energy of the people of Burma to reach out towards a democratic form of government has not been suppressed.
Despite all the cruelties of the military junta and the untold suffering they have caused to the people of Burma, one contrast that there is between Burma and Sri Lanka is the absence of causing of large-scale forced disappearances in Burma while in Sri Lanka, the period beginning from 1971 is marked by causing of forced disappearance of thousands of persons in the south, north and east of Sri Lanka. In 1971 in retaliation to relatively a minor rebellion, the coalition government in Sri Lanka, fully supported by the UNP caused large-scale disappearances of persons most of whom were very young.
It was the chilling effect of the 1971 repression with such large-scale use of forced disappearances of persons after securing arrest that determined the nature of political violence in Sri Lanka. Apprehending that the state reaction to any form of serious political resistance was ruthless resort to killings that the rebels too adapted in employing equally cruel strategies. This created justification for state’s retaliation where the attempt to annihilate resistance took the form of widespread use of forced disappearances.
What makes the contrast between the political climate of Burma and Sri Lanka is this aspect of the resort to large-scale disappearances in Sri Lanka. The use of such forms of violence has destroyed the scope for achieving political change by peaceful means. The state has never regretted this use of large-scale disappearances in the attempt to suppress political resistance.
The result is the growth of a shadow state within Sri Lanka that under the ministry of defence resorts to extreme forms of violence to control every form of political activism and is considered justifiable and legitimate. The political discourse by way of peaceful political activism against the government is allowed no room. The real controller of politics in Sri Lanka is the ministry of defence that has within it the power to mobilise intelligent services and the paramilitary forces. Instead of peaceful political competition leading to a democratic political discourse what exists within Sri Lanka is a strategy of annihilation of all political opposition.
* Basil Fernando is the Director-Policies and Programs at the AHRC